Stanley Middleton won the Booker Prize in 1974 for Holiday.
On a jaunt to London, I discovered his books at Waterstones. I wondered, Why haven’t I heard of him before? But Middleton’s work is not widely acclaimed in the U.S. A critic at The New York Times in 1989 called Entry into Jerusalem a “tight-lipped novel by the prolific British writer” and further said “This mannered repression leaves much space in the novel for the author to fill with tedious detail.”
It is exactly my thing! I adore British repression. I love Anita Brookner, of whom Middleton slightly reminds me, Kazuo Ishiguro, and A. S. Byatt. In fact, these British writers represent the pinnacle of 20th-century British literature to me.
It is true that Middleton’s remarkable novel, An After-Dinner’s Sleep, which was published in 1986, is quite buttoned-up. And I love it! The protagonist, Alistair Murray, a 65-year-old widower, has a lot of time on his hands. He loves music and plays Bach on the piano, reads widely, and takes long walks. He is a retired Director of Education who was once a powerful man in the Midlands. Now he must shape his days by routine activities. And he is sitting alone one night when Eleanor Franks, with whom he had a brief sexual affair years ago, shows up at his house.
Middleton’s writing is brilliant but not showy. The first exchange between Alistair and Eleanor subtly reveals their disparate characters.
‘I’m not interrupting anything important?’
‘You’re not interrupting anything. I was sitting here reading, but if you questioned me I’d have some difficulty recalling what it was. There’s nothing I want on the telly, and the Prom’s full of stuff I don’t want to hear. When I was young Friday night was Beethoven.’
‘And Amami,’ she said. ‘A shampoo.’ She giggled, but her face straightened at once.
Eleanor is an impulsive socialite lacking compelling interests. She claims she has dropped in because she is disturbed by a news item. But it becomes clear that it was an impulse, perhaps born of loneliness. Eleanor, too, is a widow.
Middleton’s quiet descriptions of daily life fascinate me. Every word is carefully chosen, and the characterization of Alistair reveals a capable man who is trying to find his way alone in old age. He misses his wife, Janet, an ambitious woman who pushed him into his successful career, which he is convinced was over-valued and riddled with mistakes. He escapes self-deprecating rumination by spending time with his son, Sebastian, a famous TV journalist, and his wife Francesca, a lawyer.
Eleanor is an important character, but not the center of his life. He is too cautious; she is too flighty. Alistair and Eleanor begin an off-again, on-again friendship. She drinks too much, invites him over to help entertain her older sister, who is dying of cancer, and accompanies him to a classical music concert where Alistair is uplifted and she is obviously bored. Quite often she takes off on impulse to stay with friends in Portugal or France. But Alistair is used to solitude, and he disciplines himself to study various subjects. He is writing an article about education, which is not going well; Middleton’s description of writing gone amok is pitch-perfect. (Haven’t we all been there?)
I love Middleton’s wit. When Eleanor’s sick sister retires to bed with Mansfield Park, Eleanor asks Alistair, “Would you choose Mansfield Park if you were dying?” (No, I would not!)
And the title comes from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure:
Thou hast nor youth nor age
But as it were an after-dinner’s sleep
Dreaming on both.
A brilliant novel!